The Neruda Case

  • Roberto Ampuero
  • Riverhead Books
  • 352 pp.

Artistic invention and South American history color this richly textured novel in which a chance meeting with the poet Pablo Neruda leads to a game of sleuthing.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

Mix ever-tightening suspense, South American history, the fictional treatment of a major world poet, revolutionary turmoil and a reluctant sleuth and you’ve got a novel that is hard to put down and easy to remember. In The Neruda Case, Roberto Ampuero’s first novel to appear in English (though he has otherwise long been published worldwide), the author’s new readers step into the Chilean crisis of 1973. Allende’s socialist-leaning coalition government is under siege and tottering. A military junta is about to put General Pinochet into power.

The aging and severely ailing Pablo Neruda, an Allende partisan, has something nagging at his soul. A young man named Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban by way of Miami now living with his activist wife in Valparaíso (Chile’s second city), meets Neruda at a social gathering. After some brief conversation, the great poet asks Cayetano to a private meeting during which he convinces him to track down, with utmost discretion, a Dr. Bracamonte, whom Neruda had known three decades earlier during a diplomatic post in Mexico City. Neruda seems desperate to discover the doctor’s whereabouts.

Hypnotized by Neruda’s gift of gab, flattery and transcendent personality, Cayetano agrees. It’s clear that the money will be good. However, he is hesitant; after all, he has no experience or skills in sleuthing. Outrageously, Neruda presents him with an armful of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels and suggests that he start reading.

In this manner, Ampuero launches his theme of life and art in two ways: in Neruda’s suggesting the novelist’s fiction will suffice for the real-life investigator’s training, and in having the poet conjure up a detective, Cayetano in a new role, who had never before existed. Neruda observes that he has played many parts in his life, inventing himself over and over again. Why can’t Cayetano give it a try? Ampuero cleverly complicates this theme throughout the novel.

This is a game for academics and other literati. What’s going to hold the general reader? Well, of course, it’s the mystery itself. Why is it important to find Bracamonte? How well will Cayetano serve as a detective? What happens after the doctor is found — or if he isn’t found? Time is running out on various levels: It’s running out for Chile, for Neruda and for the young detective manqué.

Ampuero’s prose, as rendered in the translation of Carolina de Robertis, is brilliant. He can exquisitely register the states of mind of both Neruda and his new hireling. He can fully engage the reader in the sweeping scope of the novel’s issues and locations. He can provide an exacting and evocative portraiture for Valparaíso and each place to which Cayetano’s mission sends him — Mexico City, Santiago, La Paz, East Berlin, Havana. Whether describing the condition of a wooden door, neighborhood traffic, the tastes and smells of food, or the crowds during a political demonstration, Roberto Ampuero nails it. Similarly, the ragged emotions of fear, of ardent partisanship, of guilt, of — you name it — are registered marvelously.

All this goes to say that Ampuero is a fine literary writer who is adding to the possibilities of genre literature. To call his book a noir thriller does not begin to suggest the sophistication and richness of this gorgeously textured novel.

Along the way, The Neruda Case, which was originally published in Spanish in 2008, becomes a partial biography of Pablo Neruda — or of the Neruda whom Ampuero invents. The five multi-chapter sections of the book bear the titles of the names of five of the most important women in womanizer Neruda’s life, and the reasons for those titles become clear as Neruda’s past is revealed in the process of  Cayetano’s investigation. In each of the sections, one chapter is given over to a first-person reverie: a meditation in Neruda’s mind about the woman, his emotional debts and his selfish failures. These passages, set in italics, heighten the reader’s sense that a conclusion to Cayetano’s investigation is necessary for a final summing up of the poet’s life, its meaning and purpose.

The investigatory trail ushers in a wide range of sharply individualized secondary characters. From each, Cayetano learns something that he needs in order to move ahead; from most, he also learns something about himself. Just as Pablo Neruda invented himself as the grand poet of the 20th-century Spanish-speaking world, Cayetano Brulé is inventing himself as private detective Brulé. Is it simply a coincidence that Georges Simenon sometimes wrote under the pen name Brühl?

Near the end, after Neruda’s original charge to Cayetano has changed its shape and focus several times, the novice detective reflects on his assigned texts: “The Belgian’s plots, however well wrought, belonged to a terrain alien to him [Cayetano]; they were literature, fictitious worlds tacked together through the skill and imagination of a famous writer. But he currently faced the cruel, implacable, chaotic reality of Latin America, a world whose plot had no known author or pre-established script that could make all things possible.”

It takes Roberto Ampuero to hold such fictitious and actual worlds in resonant suspense.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in many regional and national publications.

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